One of the most powerful illustrations is from the relationship of Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller. You may know the story. Helen was a young girl who, at the age of nineteen months, became deaf and blind as the result of an unknown illness. Her parents, at a loss as to how to help their suffering daughter, provided little restraint or discipline. So when Annie was hired to teach Helen, she made no progress at first, due to Helen’s wild and violent behavior. “It was useless to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me” Annie reasoned. So Annie began at the beginning. She insisted that Helen obey.
After an extended battle of wills, Annie won. Helen became calm and submissive, able to listen, and able to learn. And oh what she learned! This little girl, whose life was up until now a dark and lonely place, learned to communicate. She learned to “speak” and to “listen” through her hands. She learned to read. And so, Annie wisely concluded: “Obedience is the gateway for knowledge to enter the mind.”
So it is with our children. We have this all-precious gift to give to them—the good news of the gospel. We have much to teach them about God, who He is, what He has done, what His Word has to say about the world and about their lives. And yet to truly practice effective gospel-centered mothering we must first teach them to obey.
“Training must come before teaching” insisted Katherine Howard, Elisabeth Elliot’s mother. “[Teaching] is impossible unless the children cooperate. And they don’t cooperate unless they are disciplined from their earliest days. This discipline lays the groundwork for teaching.”
This is why Scripture equates a parents love with discipline and hatred with a lack of love (Prov. 13:24). Counterintuitive to the post-modern mind, but as true as ever. “Train up a child in the way he should go” Proverbs exhorts us, “even when he is old he will not depart from it” (22:6).
This is both an exhortation and encouragement to mothers. It is an exhortation to moms when we are tempted to neglect loving discipline and training—whether from laziness, busyness, fear of our children’s rejection, or biblical ignorance. We must not neglect this most important biblical mothering priority.
It is also an encouragement to moms who are “in the trenches.” You are faithfully—not perfectly, but consistently—training your young children to obey. You may see very little in the way of results so far. You may be worn out and discouraged. You may wonder if you are on the right track. You may worry because your mothering doesn’t “feel” very gospel-centered at the moment. But your child’s obedience isn’t opposed to the gospel. It is the gateway through which you can bring the gospel message.
So persevere. Be faithful. And I promise—better yet, God has promised!—that you will reap a harvest if you do not give up (Gal 6:9).